In the telling of history, the calendar assumes inimitable significance and dates are suffused with reverence. In 1947, in a Europe still deeply bruised by the Second World War, a gang of anonymous Surrealist artists and philosophers published a curious text — the Encyclopaedia da Costa. The encyclopaedia, an extension of the French philosopher Georges Bataille’s notion of the ‘Acephale’ which inverted the supremacy of man in the universe, was purposefully designed to be neither serial nor complete, famously beginning mid-word and alluding to previous volumes which did not exist. The Encyclopaedia carried many prescient ideas disguised as ‘practical jokes’, most prominent of which was the ‘Licence to Live’, attributed to Marcel Duchamp.
A fictional one-page form issued by the French authorities, the ‘Licence’ was, quite simply, an annual document that guaranteed life within the borders of the nation. It had to be signed and renewed monthly (weekly for foreigners), and failure to bear it upon one’s person would result in capital punishment. Parents were urged to procure one for infants within a week of birth, and the ‘withdrawal’ of the licence was imminent if undesirable facts emerged about the person. The idea of such far-reaching state control over life, where bodies were understood as citizen and aliens, and accordingly given an uncertain, regulated ‘right to live’, was perhaps sombre satire in Europe then; but for a nation emerging in another continent that very year, it would gradually become an oppressive reality.
It has been 75 years since India was created as an independent nation in 1947; a country that adopted the frameworks of democracy, public welfare and secularism from the time of its inception, in large part due to the efforts of B.R. Ambedkar and Dakshayani Velayudhan, the only Dalit woman in the Constituent Assembly. Yet, the promise of that freedom from colonial rule — shadowed then by the violence of Partition, and the capitulatory politics of territorial acquisition — has been steadily extinguished with the ascendance of an undisguised, unchecked politics of hate in the country. As celebrations erupt to laud the arrival of this landmark year, where in the desolate, clockwork world of televised protocols and surveilled devices, can the thinking mind roam?
Spectrum of icons
The Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT), formed in 1989 in honour of the revolutionary playwright, has a legacy of upholding pluralistic values and speaking truth to power through art. One of its earliest programmes, Muktnaad (1993), a night-long performance that began on August 14 on the banks of the Sarayu in Ayodhya and culminated with the ushering in of Independence Day, celebrated secularism and communal harmony months after the demolition of Babri Masjid. It ran to packed audiences despite facing bureaucratic obstructions and logistical hurdles.
“It builds up a powerful voice of dissent, stringing together various recent protests against authoritarianism.”
To mark 75 years of Independence, SAHMAT has brought together the works of nearly 300 artists and writers from across the country in an exhibition titled Hum Sab Sahmat: Resisting a Nation without Citizens (July 2 to August 14, at Jawahar Bhawan, New Delhi). Conceived during the pandemic, the project sought, through the humble means of a 15”x15” canvas and standard postage, to unite artists and writers in probing the meanings of freedom and citizenship; the fictive ‘licence to live’ now manifest as a discriminatory document of citizenship under the National Register of Citizens. The response was overwhelming. If Encyclopaedia Da Costa was positioned deliberately against the authority of a single author, Hum Sab Sahmat brings together voices, through mediums and formats as varied as painting, photography, collage, poetry, manifesto, short fiction and performance art. It builds up a powerful voice of dissent, stringing together the various protests against authoritarianism that shape the contemporary moment.
The canvases are equal in size and presented in sets of four, tied loosely by themes such as labour, free speech, ecology, gender, and history. Pasted on jute banners, they remind viewers of the sacks in which grains are stored. This uniformity in the spatial form of the canvas ignites a spectrum of icons. Gandhi and Tagore appear as conscience-keepers in the canvases of visual artist and poet Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, and photographer Vicky Roy, respectively. But their legacies are contested: in the artworks of Deepak K. Ambuj, Alakananda Sengupta and Sadaf Jamil, Gandhi is a forgotten exemplar, with his iconic spectacles shattered.
The exhibition pulsates with names, movements and ideas. A canvas by M.M.P. Singh references Faiz’s poem, “ Jis desh mein”, to chart the decline of civility and the rise of intolerance; Rekha Awasathi’s painting uses Hindi writer Dhoomil’s poem lamenting the surrender of common sense; Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics on identity politics and humanity find a place too. The poet Anwar Ali’s lyrics titled “ID Card”, written in Malayalam, Tamil and English, is evocative of W.H. Auden’s poem “Refugee blues” and inspired by Mahmoud Darwish’s poem, “Identity card”, about Palestine under Israeli occupation. Ali charts the anguish of living in a documentary raj: What?/Name not in the register?/No need/I don’t intend to be buried in a dead land.
The farmers’ protests of 2021 are invoked in Madangopal Singh’s poem in Punjabi, titled “ Baadra”. It extols the grit of farmers who sang and slept on the highways of New Delhi for months on end; Pritha Paul’s canvas recites the slogan of that protest “Tractor Ab Nahi Rukega”. In a woodcut by Tsering Negi, a lone female farmer stands in front of a mountain range reminiscent of the artist’s hometown, Kinnaur; in K. Sudheesh’s quiet painting, a woman sits in a dense forest evocative of his childhood in Calicut. As environmental protection and rights of Adivasis are diluted, Mamta Sagar’s poem “Forest”, written in Kannada and translated by herself, captures the utilitarian ends of the mainstream discourse on environment: “Pluck sporadically blooming flowers of desires/ Wear them on their hair, place it on the ear/ Sing hymns of caste and equity/ Strangulate in the neck to show sympathy”
“The spirit of the anti-NRC and CAA protests of 2019-2020 burns bright in the minds of artists and writers alike.”
But everywhere the earth is resurgent, with lands, skies and rivers bearing witness to the progression of history. In Bilal Bhagat’s deceptively ordinary painting giving us the aerial view of a valley, there are verdant mountains and a tranquil river. Look closely and you notice small structures on either side of the riverbank — a military camp has been erected in a Kashmir village, displacing the people there — a common enough occurrence in the region from where Bhagat hails.
Khursheed Ahmad, an artist born to a family of Bhand performers of Kashmir, has a series of photographs documenting a performance meant for the exhibition. In the images, Ahmad wanders across the landscape of Srinagar with a crimson banner proclaiming ‘A Nation without Citizen’. As the banner unfurls in the breeze, overlooking the Valley that has been occupied and militarised relentlessly, it connects to the title of the exhibition and the word ‘freedom’ is transformed into the pulsating call for azadi.
The spirit of the anti-NRC and CAA protests of 2019-2020, which were eclipsed by the subsequent pandemic, still burns bright in the minds of artists and writers alike. Mahavir Bisht’s photograph of a college gate covered in Anti-CAA graffiti and the poetry of Punjabi writer Pash resurrects the evenings spent singing together under a cold December sky.
In Nirmala Biluka’s painting, Ambedkar sits surrounded by raised fists and palms reaching for the sky, reminding us of the critical role of Ambedkarite philosophy in shaping the articulation of dissent at Shaheen Bagh; Vaibhav Bhardwaj photographs a portrait of Ambedkar nestled in the branches of a tree, overseeing the unfolding of protests on the ground. The courage of protesting bodies as they faced the terror of the gun at Shaheen Bagh is painted by Tejaswita. The right to dissent, once counted as a moral duty of citizens, is now increasingly viewed as a crime: an illustration by Paule, a Delhi-based artist, performs a haziri of political prisoners such as Sudha Bharadwaj, the late Stan Swamy, and Anand Teltumbde, among others.
Seven and a half decades of independence have left behind a bloodied ground. Kitna khoon bahaa jayega? Krishen Prasad Singh asks in a poem from Ayodhya. Prem Singh paints the outlines of a temple with bare, saffron lines as darkness descends on the scene. “Who lives if India dies?” asks a painting by Valay and Niyati Singh.
The answer can be found in the grotesque multi-beaked creature blindly searching for its prey in a canvas by Ilzhar, and the body crouching down in servility in a painting by Shaon Basu; Meher Pestonji’s poem “Invincible Lohagarh” conjures the fury evoked at any display of love in the present times — “Mindless monkeys/ overrun the fort in hordes/ menacing, growling, baring teeth/ at young couples”.
The devastation made by majoritarian mobs is alluded to in Vinit Gupta’s triptych of a woman in hijab, her eyes closing and opening with a piercing melancholy. She is Saira, mother of 16-year-old Junaid Khan, who was brutally lynched on a Delhi-Mathura train in 2017. Data on public lynching might be hard to come by but news reports and citizen journalism point to its rise. A poem by Shubha recounts those lost to the violence — Kausar Bano in the Godhra pogrom; Roop Kanwar, a victim of the practice of widow immolation. There is no escape from hate. Sabitha Satchi writes in a poem, “We come to kill”, that we have “Nowhere to run, nowhere to go.” Suvan Chandr writes in Hindi: “Our hands and feet are tied, and we are being asked to walk.” The predicament is rendered visually by Babitha Rajiv, who paints a body scuffling on its forearms, its feet and mouth tied with a rope.
In such a bind: what is to be done? The answer lies in the proposition ‘ hum sab’, the ‘we’ that makes action possible. In the softly washed paintings of Nilanjana Nandy and Nilima Sheikh, we see the counterpose to the frenzied mob — silhouettes of groups in contact, working in concert. To get a guide we turn to the Constitution, which promises a moral fabric that has frayed but is still not beyond repair. Hum Sab Sahmat is a step towards such acts of mending.
Arushi Vats is a writer based in New Delhi, India.